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Last year, just as the unrestricted drawdown of TVA reservoirs began, parts of the Tennessee Valley were hit with the remnants of three tropical storm systems. Rainfall and runoff in the eastern Valley in September 2004 were the highest ever recorded, averaging 8.41 inches and 3.35 inches, respectively. As a result, tributary reservoir levels dropped very slowly during the fall, with several tributary reservoirs remaining well above flood guide levels through the end of the year.
In contrast, this year September and October were abnormally dry. Although two catastrophic hurricanes hit the Gulf coast, the Tennessee Valley received very little rain. Inflows for the eastern portion of the Valley were only about one-third of what they were last year. The dry, hot fall weather — coupled with higher-than-expected fuel costs — resulted in reservoir levels being lowered at an accelerated rate once the unrestricted drawdown toward winter levels began.
According to Morgan Goranflo, TVA’s Manager of River Scheduling, these two years effectively illustrate the flexibility of the reservoir system under TVA’s new reservoir operating policy. “Despite real challenges on both ends of the spectrum, the system was still able to do what it’s supposed to do,” he says. “In 2004, the reservoirs were able to store water to minimize flood damage despite an abnormally wet fall. And in 2005, we were able to supply water for a full range of downstream uses, including providing hydropower to reduce the need to purchase expensive electricity from gas-fired generation, in spite of very dry weather. That’s significant because on Labor Day of both years, we were at almost exactly the same place in terms of reservoir elevations.”
Although other areas of the southeastern U.S. are vulnerable to hurricanes and the flooding associated with them, the Tennessee Valley most often experiences only the remnants of tropical storms. But the region can be impacted significantly if a system stalls out and dumps large quantities of rainfall in a localized area, as the historical record shows. Goranflo says that flood guides on most tributary reservoirs are actually shaped, in part, by the tropical storm season. “They go down to varying degrees in summer to help ensure that we have room to accommodate remnants of tropical systems that make their way through the Valley during that time of year.”
While Labor Day levels on most tributary reservoirs were similar in 2004 and 2005, it was a different story by November 1. As the chart below shows, most tributary reservoirs were significantly lower this year than they were on the same date last year. Goranflo explains: “In both wet and dry years, we start releasing more water after Labor Day. But in wet years the effects of these releases aren’t as apparent because inflows are high enough to replace a lot of the water being released. In dry years reservoir levels drop much faster because there isn’t as much water coming into the system.”
*Elevation in feet above mean sea level.
Reservoir users welcomed the higher levels in late 2004, Goranflo acknowledges, but it was a stressful time for TVA’s river forecasters. “We were moving the water through the system as fast as we could, facing the threat of back-to-back hurricanes. Fortunately, the second system didn’t generate nearly as much rain as predicted. But the situation is an excellent illustration of why we need to recover flood storage space quickly in the fall.”
View information about your reservoir, including the operating guide and actual midnight elevation.
For many of us, measuring rainfall totals with a rain gauge is an interesting pastime. But for TVA, accurate rainfall data is critical to reservoir operations — especially during flood events, when TVA’s river forecasters must decide whether to store the water coming into the system or release it to make enough storage space for possible floodwaters yet to come.
TVA receives hourly rainfall measurements from 247 rain gauges strategically located across the Tennessee Valley. About 180 of these gauges are operated by TVA; the rest are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S. Geological Survey.
Data from these gauges is available to the public on TVA’s Rain Gauge Data Web page. The site was recently revamped to include data from additional gauges and to make it easier for users to select specific gauge locations. It also offers a three-month archive of observed daily rainfall totals that can be easily downloaded and printed for each location.
My lake seems really low this year – especially for mid-November. Can you explain why? How far will the water level drop?
You’re right: water levels on some tributary reservoirs are lower this fall than they were all last winter. The main reason is the recent dry weather.
You can get a general idea about what to expect in terms of winter water levels by looking at the operating guide for your reservoir. The shaded area shows your reservoir’s expected elevation range throughout the year based on computer simulations using more than 100 years of historical rainfall and runoff data.
The operating guides for tributary reservoirs also show a flood guide line. TVA’s operating objective is to keep reservoir levels below this line year-round to preserve flood storage space, except for temporary storage of high inflows. But there is an important difference in TVA’s operating policy in the summer and the winter. In the summer, TVA tries to keep reservoir levels as close to the flood guide line as rainfall permits to support water-based recreation. However, in the winter, reservoir levels may drop well below this line as TVA uses the water to produce hydropower, maintain flows for navigation, and achieve other operating objectives. If the fall and winter months are dry, as they’ve been so far this year, reservoir users can expect winter levels to be below the flood guide elevation until some significant rainfall occurs.
This is the second in a series of articles highlighting the work of TVA Watershed Teams. These teams perform a variety of functions, which include building partnerships for water-quality improvement, issuing permits for boat docks and other shoreline-construction activities, and managing recreation and natural and cultural resources on public reservoir lands. Locate your nearest Watershed Team.
Careful review of proposed land actions preserves public benefits
As a Land Use Representative on TVA’s Pickwick-Wheeler Watershed Team, Chellye Campbell focuses on “land actions,” which means handling requests for permission to use TVA-managed public land for a particular purpose or, in some cases, conducting a transfer of property. Some of these land actions are relatively simple, but others can be quite complicated and require approval by the TVA Board of Directors.
A few examples illustrate the range of land actions handled by TVA Land Use Representatives:
The level of environmental and programmatic review varies significantly depending on the nature and scope of the proposed action, but each request is reviewed carefully. Last year, TVA Land Use Representatives handled about 300 requests for use of TVA-managed property across the Tennessee Valley.
Part of Campbell’s job is to take the pulse of stakeholders when it comes to their opinions on a given land action: “We hold public meetings which are built around the idea of two-way communication. We try to answer the questions citizens pose to us, and we also listen very carefully to what they say. Public review helps to ensure that all potential impacts are identified. It helps us make durable decisions — decisions that are in the best interest of the affected stakeholders in both the short and long term.”
When Campbell reviews a land action request, she is required to adhere to state and federal law and is charged with balancing the issues from the perspective of both the applicant and the general public. “In the end, it really boils down to the fact that the resource in question is public land,” she notes. “There’s only so much of it to go around. Public land is a limited resource, so we have to be very careful about how we use it.”
When TVA changed its reservoir operating policy in June 2004, the TVA Board made a commitment to monitor the effects on the Valley’s sensitive natural and cultural resources.
Peggy Shute’s job is to make good on that commitment. She and her colleagues at TVA are conducting a broad range of monitoring activities — from checking water temperatures in the tailwater below Cherokee Dam to assessing potential impacts to green pitcher plant populations adjacent to Chatuge Reservoir. “I think folks would be surprised to know the scope of our efforts and the care we’re taking to look at potential impacts.”
As TVA’s Natural Heritage Manager, Shute has been involved in analyzing potential resource impacts since TVA began looking at changes to its reservoir operating policy several years ago. “As part of our Reservoir Operations Study, TVA prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS), a detailed document that compared the likely environmental impacts of different operating alternatives. Our analysis, documented in the EIS, showed that the operating policy adopted as a result of the study would have less resource impacts than the other alternatives considered. Now we’re in the process of validating that finding.”
TVA staff members identified 11 areas they considered to be potentially the most vulnerable to impacts from the operational changes implemented in June 2004. In each instance, a plan was put in place to monitor what happens with regard to the resource — to document changes and, if necessary, find ways to address any impacts.
The study areas range from looking at how the physical and chemical condition of TVA-managed reservoirs is affected by delaying the unrestricted drawdown to assessing the impact of shoreline erosion resulting from wave action on archaeological resources. In addition to issues raised by TVA experts, some areas of investigation were also driven by concerns expressed by Valley citizens. Duck hunters, for instance, have a vested interest in the attempt to discover how vegetation growth along reservoir mudflats (an important food source for migrating waterfowl) may be affected by holding reservoir levels up longer. Many studies, such as an effort to characterize the response of sportfish populations to changing reservoir levels, require extensive coordination with state and federal management agencies, as well as with local and regional organizations.
A number of the areas under evaluation are being documented for the very first time, according to Shute: “We’re conducting ‘baseline studies’ that will serve to establish the benchmarks by which we will measure future changes.”
Shute has a high degree of confidence in the study process, in part because of the people involved. “These individuals — our resource experts at TVA — have made it their life’s work to care for these resources. That personal commitment carries over into every aspect of our monitoring efforts and enables us to make decisions based on good science.”
The monitoring results so far are encouraging, says Shute. “It’s way too early to be able to state that the operational changes haven’t had any negative impact on the Valley’s natural and cultural resources. But I’m happy to be able to say that we haven’t seen anything thus far to suggest a problem.”
They’re heading into the third year of operation. The money’s in place. A strong multi-agency partnership is working cooperatively. Most significantly, quantifiable results have been observed. It’s no wonder that EPA is pointing to the Three Creeks Watershed Project as a model.
When the effort was started four years ago in Washington County, Virginia, three streams that drain into the Middle Fork Holston River (a major tributary flowing into South Holston Reservoir) were officially listed as impaired. Cedar, Hall/Byers, and Hutton creeks did not meet the standard for general water quality and also exceeded the standard for fecal coliform bacteria.
Today, monitoring by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality shows a decrease in the extremely high fecal coliform values previously observed in all three streams. On Hutton Creek, fecal coliform violations have dropped by an annual average of 50 percent since 2000.
Bucky Edmondson is confident that conditions will continue to improve. As a member of TVA’s Holston-Cherokee-Douglas Watershed Team, he’s seen his share of well-intentioned efforts come and go over the years. “A lot of watershed improvement projects get initiated, planned out, and then are eventually put on a shelf,” he explains. “Lack of funding is frequently a problem, as well as lack of local leadership to see a project through to completion. Many times, there just isn’t anyone available or willing to carry the ball.”
So what makes this effort different? Edmondson is convinced that it has to do with the strength of the partnership. In addition to TVA, an array of state and federal agencies have pitched in: the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 3 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Virginia Departments of Health, Environmental Quality, and Conservation and Recreation. But perhaps no single entity has had more of an impact than the Holston River Soil and Water Conservation District.
“Local Conservation Districts have a solid foundation in the local community,” says Edmondson. “When it comes to getting sometimes-skeptical residents to adopt best management practices, the folks in the District office often have the kind of long-established trust and connections that make them credible. That’s where we can begin to make inroads. The best part is that these offices are located throughout the Tennessee Valley. If a group of citizens has an environmental issue they’d like to see addressed, they’re likely to turn to their local Conservation District for advice and support.”
In the case of the Three Creeks Watershed Project, the District was instrumental in convincing local farmers to adopt the kinds of agricultural best management practices (such as stream fencing and livestock grazing management systems) that serve to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment entering waterways. Edmondson reports that 13.8 miles of stream fencing and 80.6 acres of riparian buffers have been installed since the project was implemented.
He says that TVA’s role has been focused primarily on providing technical expertise and financial support to identify and correct failing septic systems and eliminate straight pipes conveying human waste to the streams. Since the project began, 151 septic tanks have been pumped, one alternative waste treatment system has been installed, and 39 on-site sewage disposal systems have been upgraded — either by replacing straight pipes with new septic systems, connecting to a public sewer line, or repairing or replacing septic systems that were failing.
“Take a good look at the approach we’ve taken on the Middle Fork Holston and you’ll see the future of TVA’s water quality program,” says Edmondson. “This is really where we’re headed. The reality is, in these days of budgetary constraints, no single agency or entity is likely to have the funds to support a project of this size and scope. But a bunch of us can get together and do amazing things. If everybody brings a nickel to the table, pretty soon we’ll have a dollar. It’s all about leveraging resources. Working together, we are truly greater than the sum of our parts.”
Blount and Cullman counties in Alabama. Whitfield, Walker, and Catoosa counties in northwest Georgia. Alcorn, Tishomingo, Prentiss, Itawamba, and Lee counties in Mississippi.
What do these places have in common? They are all looking to the Tennessee River to help meet their future water-supply needs.
Water is usually plentiful in the Tennessee Valley, with an average of about 51 inches of rainfall annually. But the predicted population growth in the Southeast, coupled with water shortages in some of the surrounding areas, has the potential to change this. The well-publicized water shortages in Atlanta and Birmingham and the recent “water wars” among the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have heightened the public’s awareness of a potential water supply problem in the Southeast.
At issue, according to Gene Gibson, Manager of Water Supply at TVA, is the advisability of interbasin water transfers. “Interbasin transfers occur when water is moved from one river basin into another. This water is rarely returned to its source basin and only provides benefits to the area where it is transferred.”
Pipeline requests are of particular concern, says Gibson. “These requests are typically for large volumes of water, such as a potential request from the Birmingham and Blount County, Alabama, area for 180 million gallons a day from Guntersville Reservoir in Marshall County.” This request is currently on hold because Alabama has just passed the Tennessee River Preservation Act, which prohibits water from being taken out of Marshall County until the State of Alabama comes up with a comprehensive plan to manage the state’s water.
“Water is a finite and critical resource,” says Gibson, “so requests for large transfers require a thorough, rigorous, and inclusive review. Such requests could affect water levels on TVA tributary reservoirs, water quality, and other river system benefits, especially in drought years. “Impacts from an interbasin transfer aren’t limited to the extraction point,” he says. “They can occur in tributary reservoirs or streams hundreds of miles away. Future growth within the Valley also could be affected.”
TVA fisheries scientists found lots of reasons to be pleased with the results of the 2005 Spring Sportfish Survey. Ten of the 13 reservoirs sampled (nine main-stem and four tributaries) showed an increase in the overall catch rate from last year’s survey. Fish health and condition were also found to be better than average.
The annual survey (conducted this year from March through early June) helps determine the number, age, and general health of black bass and crappie populations in TVA reservoirs. Results are used by state agencies to protect and improve sport fisheries. More than 150 anglers and observers participated in this year’s survey.
Top-producing reservoirs by category (numbers of fish)
Learn more about TVA’s Spring Sportfish Survey and view tables of sportfish survey results for individual reservoirs.
This time of year can hold special rewards for Valley birdwatchers, with a wide array of species present in abundance. Many locations along the river system are quiet and less crowded than during other times of year, making birding a great option for a family outing. Here are some of the best sites for seasonal bird watching on TVA reservoirs, along with a list of the species you’re likely to see.
Rankin Bottoms, Douglas Reservoir — Considered by many birders to be one of the best birding areas in Tennessee. A fall trip should reveal dozens of migrating shorebirds, terns, herons, and egrets.
Kingston Fossil Plant, Watts Bar Reservoir — Migrating shorebirds, several species of hawks, herons, and an occasional peregrine falcon. Brown-headed nuthatches are year-round residents of the loblolly pine plantations.
Chota Waterfowl Refuge, Tellico Reservoir — Grebes, loons, herons, bald eagles, and a large variety of songbirds, including both resident species and neotropical migrants. This area also supports an average of 3,000 ducks during the winter months.
Hiwassee Refuge, Chickamauga Reservoir — Shorebirds, terns, double-crested cormorants, herons, ospreys, bald eagles, and a large variety of songbirds. This is a great spot to view sandhill cranes, which are present from now until March and frequently number in the thousands.
Guntersville State Park, Guntersville Reservoir —The Park is best known for large numbers of wintering bald eagles, loons, grebes, and waterfowl.
Muscle Shoals Reservation, Wilson Reservoir — Along the trails, you may encounter barred owls, woodpeckers, and many woodland birds. Great blue and black-crowned night-herons are frequently seen along the river below Wilson Dam; spotted sandpipers are occasionally observed there, as well.
Duck River Unit, Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, Kentucky Reservoir —The Duck River, Busseltown, and Big Sandy units of the refuge are home to large numbers of wintering ducks and geese, as well as herons, cormorants, and bald eagles.
Pick any of the 50 sites on the self-guided tour and you’re not likely to be disappointed. The North Alabama Birding Trail features some of the top sites in the state, from Waterloo at the Mississippi state line to Fort Payne at the Georgia state line. Varied terrain provides a wide range of birding habitat. The word is spreading among birdwatching enthusiasts, who travel from all over the region to observe raptors, wading birds, shorebirds, woodland birds, and neotropical songbirds. The area is particularly rich in waterfowl during late fall and winter.
A cooperative project spearheaded by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Trail was funded by a $280,000 federal matching grant through the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program. Matching funds are being provided by the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Association, TVA, several corporate sponsors (including BP Amoco, 3M, and Nucor Steel), and almost a dozen Chambers of Commerce and Convention and Visitors’ Bureaus. TVA’s Pickwick-Wheeler Watershed Team played a pivotal role in securing grant funding for the project.
Several of the Trail’s sites are located on TVA-managed public lands: the informal campsite at Waterloo on Pickwick Reservoir is a great spot for observing bald eagles, Wilson Dam and Wheeler Dam are known throughout the Southeast as premier locations for spotting a wide variety of gulls, and visitors enjoying the nature trails on TVA’s Muscle Shoals reservation are likely to see many woodland birds and neotropical migrants.
For more information on the Trail (including a visitor’s guide with detailed map), visit www.NorthAlabamaBirdingTrail.com.
If you enjoy being in the great outdoors but prefer to avoid the crowds, now is a good time to take advantage of the many day-use areas operated by TVA. You’ll find plenty to do, from picnicking and birdwatching to hiking and biking.
To find a day-use area near you, call your local TVA Watershed Team or purchase a copy of Tennessee River Country, a handy glovebox guide to TVA places for family fun, at your local bookstore. Copies of the guide also are available by calling TVA at 865-632-6113.
To reserve a picnic pavilion at any of the sites listed below, call our toll-free number, 866-494-7186. The fee is $50.
Did you ever wonder how your recreational use of the Tennessee River system stacks up against that of other users? A number of River Neighbors readers responded to a recent request to provide this type of information electronically, and initial analysis points to some interesting results.
“We were happy to get this feedback from River Neighbors readers,” says TVA Economist Ron Riberich. “It’s helpful to see how this tracks with the data we’re starting to receive from a larger sample we conducted earlier — a mail-out survey sent to registered boaters in 10 states throughout the region.”
TVA staff will evaluate the final survey results (to be obtained from an even more sizeable and statistically significant study group of around 10,000 boaters) and use the data to help make decisions on allocating resources to address issues such as boating safety and overcrowding on some waterways.
For the time being, though, you might be interested in what we’ve learned so far by analyzing the results of surveys completed by 243 readers. Some selected highlights:
If you are a boater and have not yet responded to the survey, please take a few minutes to answer some questions on your recreational use of the Tennessee River system.
TVA no longer permits metal detecting on any public lands.
Five more marinas recently achieved the high environmental standards required for Clean Marina certification: Deerfield Resort and Marina, Flat Hollow Marina, and Sugar Hollow Dock on Norris Reservoir and Clifton Marina and Big Bear Resort on Kentucky Reservoir.
“These marinas have gone beyond what is required by law,” says Melinda Watson, TVA’s Clean Marina coordinator. “In addition to meeting federal, state, and local regulations related to marina management, they’ve voluntarily adopted a variety of practices to reduce boating-related pollution, such as better fuel handling, solid waste disposal and recycling, erosion control, and public education and outreach.”
TVA launched the Clean Marina program in 2003 to recognize marinas that go the extra mile to protect Tennessee Valley waters. For marina owners, it makes good business sense to protect the resource on which their livelihood depends.
Currently, 53 marinas in the Tennessee Valley have been certified as Clean Marinas. View a complete list and get more information on TVA’s Clean Marina program here.